This is the first of several commentaries and film reviews associated with the Sun Bowl and the resulting state of the Hokie football program. I had a pretty solid vision for what I would be writing about after the game, until Mark May and Lou Holtz decided to shoot off their mouth about the state of the program. For those of you who may have missed it, or have not read Joe's response, here is the ESPN segment again.
"They used to be a good football team offensively when they were physical up front on the offensive line and they could run the football, get five or six yards on first down. They've lost that identity." — Mark May
My reaction was much more subdued than the overwhelming outcry from HokieNation. In fact, if this statement was made on January 1st, 2013, it would be accurate. That's why there was a large overhaul in the offensive coaching staff. During the 2011 and 2012 seasons I often lamented that the offense had lost any sense of identity as the staff mindlessly chased the hot offensive concept of the week. The defense had suffered through a series of down seasons, mostly resulting from a four year drought in defensive recruiting where many top recruits were lost or washed out of the program. The true effects of the downturn were hidden somewhat by Bud Foster's unique scheme and a group of stellar ball-hawking defensive backs, but it was clear in 2011 that the Hokies were a teetering program on the verge of falling back to the middle of the pack in the ACC.
Fast forward to the publication date of this column and here is the reality as I see it today. For a running game to be dominant, you must have a terrific offensive line. Starting with the hire of Jeff Grimes, the last 12 months have seen significant improvement of Virginia Tech offensive line philosophy, blocking fundamentals, and execution.
I will make a bold statement. The Virginia Tech offensive line is significantly better today than the offensive line that paved the way for David Wilson's record-setting rushing season in 2011. Wilson's fantastic athleticism generated yardage between the 20's, but that group's lack of fundamental precision was exposed as the offense struggled in short yardage and goal line situations without the trickery of the inverted veer. Danny Coale's catch aside, the Hokies inability to run the ball against Michigan exposed the poor fundamentals of the Curt Newsome-lead group time and time again. Then, in 2012 without the presence of an elite running back, the poor offensive line fundamentals were showcased for the entire world to see.
Let's take a look at a variation of a goal line power zone play from the 2012 Sugar Bowl versus a similar play in the 2013 Sun Bowl. Here, we have the Hokies running an outside zone against Michigan. Take special note of right guard Jaymes Brooks.
Brooks has to reach block the three technique defensive tackle for Michigan (three technique meaning that the defensive tackle is aligned on the outside shoulder of the guard.) Brooks has to take a flat step to the right, and gain leverage on the outside of the tackle and turn his pads. Brooks takes a solid first step, but fails to finish the block by getting his head on the right side of the tackle, effectively sealing him inside. Then, Brooks' feet go dead, and the defensive tackle crosses his face and closes off the cutback lane for David Wilson. Eric Martin also gets blown up, and it wastes a stellar reach block by Blake DeChristopher and solid back side scoops by Andrew Miller, Greg Nosal, and Andrew Lainer. Two guys who fail to execute solid fundamental blocks ruin any chance of success for the play. This was a common theme in 2011 and 2012.
Now, let's look at J.C. Coleman's touchdown run from the Sun Bowl. Note, this run is designed to be an inside zone, but the fundamental steps for the interior blockers is identical to the Sugar Bowl play. Let's start with the formation, defensive alignment, and the blocking assignments for the play.
As this is inside zone, the goal is to successfully reach an interior defender, and then influence an edge defender to stretch wide to keep contain. That creates an ally on the interior where the back can explode through the gap. Here, right guard Andrew Miller has the difficult assignment of reaching the three technique defensive tackle, in this case five-star super freshman Eddie Vanderdoes. Laurence Gibson has to turn the outside linebacker to the outside, and David Wang has to reach the nose tackle (who is eagled to the strong side). Derrick Hopkins and Sam Rogers will lead through the bubble that should form if Miller and Gibson execute their blocks and the nose doesn't cross Wang's face to cut the play off in the backfield. Let's watch the play and freeze it to see how each player executes their block.
If you freeze the play after each lineman has completed their first step, you can see how much the fundamentals of the Hokie offensive line.
First, notice the uniformity of each lineman's feet in the picture. Each player has opened their hips and taken a perfect zone step to their right. The symmetry is beautiful. Wang has successfully beaten the nose tackle to the play side gap and has his head on the outside. Miller has gained outside leverage on Vanderdoes and has sealed him to the inside. Gibson didn't influence the outside linebacker, so he has driven him to the outside. Both Hopkins and Rogers are perfectly aligned to create a wedge in the resulting lane. Now, watch the play again and focus on Wang, Gibson, and Miller's footwork. Every player's feet are moving and stay engaged with their blocks. Coleman slips into the end zone for perhaps the easiest touchdown he has ever scored.
It is easy to single out one play from two different years, but I encourage you to go back and look at some of the film against good defensive lines in 2011 (Clemson, UNC, and Michigan) and compare them to the film against UCLA or Alabama this season. Grimes (and I am sure a ton of hard work by the starting offensive line group) has improved the fundamentals of the blocking execution of the Hokies ten-fold. On January 1st, 2013, David Wang was a bunny-hopping, dead foot guard who I didn't expect to be a starter in Grimes' zone blocking scheme. Caleb Farris struggled as a pass blocker and struggled to get shotgun snaps to the quarterback. Laurence Gibson was a talented prospect who had yet to get an opportunity to prove himself on the field. Andrew Miller was coming off a serious ankle injury, and Jonathan McLaughlin was an unheralded former East Carolina recruit who didn't factor into any immediate rebuilding plans. When that group took the field versus Alabama, each player was starting their first game at their current position. To watch Wang get 15 yards down field on a veer dive, or Farris to crack back on a UCLA defensive lineman on a screen, or watch Jonathan McLaughlin hold up against the best pass rushing linebacker in the country, is really exciting. The film clearly proves that this group is a far superior unit to previous Hokie offensive lines, and the foundation of a strong running game is terrific effort and coordination on the offensive line.
Nevertheless, the personnel at running back prevented Scot Loeffler from truly exploiting the improvement up front, and the line was good, not dominant. The line must take the next step and not just be solid with executing assignments Trey Edmunds was miscast as a dive back in some of the veer option schemes that Loeffler featured early, and as the offense started to transition to sets that were more conducive for his success (and as he got healthier) his play improved, but he was never fully comfortable at tailback. The Sun Bowl game plan, which was more heavily focused on using Carlis Parker on jet sweeps, Jerome Wright on the veer, and Logan Thomas on inverted veer instead of using J.C. Coleman as an every down back, didn't change after Thomas was injured. Loeffler continued to rotate tailbacks, feature Parker on sweeps, and use other smoke and mirrors to cover up Leal's lack of ability as a runner. I think Loeffler understands that the running back position isn't strong enough right now, and the heavy recruitment of Marshawn Williams, Shai McKenzie, D.J. Reid, and Tabyus Taylor (all significantly larger than Coleman and Mangus) shows that the Hokie staff wants to find another star workhorse running back. Note, Loeffler developed Baltimore Ravens Bernard Pierce, a 6-0, 215 pound physical power back while at Temple. If the offensive line takes the next step, and another running back can be counted on to carry the load with Trey Edmunds, the Hokie running game will return to its former glory.